- Scott Burnside, NHL
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As the playoffs get under way Wednesday night, here are the 10 story lines to watch over the coming weeks:
Chocolate or peanut butter?
It's one of the great debates, right up there with "Less filling versus tastes great" or "Betty versus Veronica." Offense versus defense. The old adage suggests you cannot win in the playoffs without great defense, and yet the Carolina Hurricanes proved a season ago that "great" is a relative term.
This season, the issue might be brought into closer focus with the fortunes of the New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks. The three are the lowest-scoring teams in the playoffs. Does it matter? In the past five playoffs, the lowest-scoring team has advanced beyond the first round just once (Minnesota Wild in 2003).
Then, there are the Buffalo Sabres, who were the most prolific team in the league this season with 308 goals. Yet, only twice in the last 20 years has the NHL's top offensive team gone on to Stanley Cup glory (Penguins in 1992 and Oilers in 1987). New Jersey boasted the NHL's best offense in 2000-01, but lost in the Stanley Cup finals.
Nolan comes full circle
It's been a long time since Ted Nolan called Buffalo home (he left after winning coach of the year honors in 1997), but there is more than a little weird chemistry humming in the background of the Islanders/Sabres first-round tilt. We're still shaking our heads at the grisly way Nolan's Islanders ended the Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff dreams. Now, Nolan faces the Sabres with a new team that was the subject of hysterical laughter before the season started.
Nolan was essentially forced out by Sabres management as a result of a host of issues -- some real, some not. He did not land another NHL job until the wacky Islanders hired him during the Stanley Cup finals last June. Now, he might well be on the Jack Adams ballot once again. You know who else might be on the ballot? The guy who replaced him in Buffalo and is still there, Lindy Ruff. Cue the "Twilight Zone" music.
No upsets please, we're Western
One of the most compelling aspects of the first round is that there almost certainly will be an upset of some form. History tells us it's virtually inevitable -- in every playoff year since 1997, a seventh seed has dispatched a second seed. It's happened six times in the East and five times in the West. Last season's biggest shocker was when the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers upset the Red Wings en route to a Cup finals berth.
But we think "upset" is a term that should be banished, at least in the West. There are many who believe Detroit, again the top seed, is in for a rough ride with eighth-seeded Calgary. And the Red Wings could be. But with the Flames sporting Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf and 96 regular-season points, would it really be an upset? We think not. The Western Conference is home to six of the top eight point-getters in the NHL. The Flames' 96 points are more than three Eastern Conference playoff teams.
One of these things is not like the other
Compare the goaltending matchups in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. It's like comparing the Mona Lisa to that black velvet painting of Elvis eating an ice cream sundae. Eight of the top 10 goals-against average leaders reside in the West; four of the top five save-percentage leaders are in the West; five of the top six shutout leaders are in the West.
What's it all mean? No one gets a free pass in the West. Either Kiprusoff or Dominik Hasek will be done after one; same with Marty Turco or Roberto Luongo; Evgeni Nabokov or Tomas Vokoun; Jean-Sebastien Giguere or Niklas Backstrom. Just as compelling is the strong chance there'll be a surprise playoff hero, a la Cam Ward a season ago in the East. Perhaps it'll be Ray Emery in Ottawa, Kari Lehtonen in Atlanta or Johan Holmqvist in Tampa. Not that we're comparing these guys to Elvis eating a sundae.
Can the Nashville Predators ignite a passion for the game in Nashville with a long playoff run? They'd better. On the ice, the Predators hit the postseason for the third straight season going a little sideways, winning five of their last 10 games in regulation. Injuries are going to be an issue as Steve Sullivan's back is still wonky and a handful of others are just getting back in the groove, including deadline acquisition Peter Forsberg.
Off the ice, the team desperately needs to win at least one playoff round to solidify its connection with fans, whose interest has dropped off dramatically since the Predators first arrived in the NHL. Corporate sponsorship also has lagged far behind expectations. There is a strong sense if the Predators don't do something to gain more loyalty with a nice, long playoff run, they will be looking for new digs.
Is it warm in here?
That euphoric feeling most players and coaches get when they reach the playoffs doesn't last long, especially if they fail to meet expectations. This is the time of year when careers are made, both on the ice and behind the bench. Or not.
Among the coaches who had better deliver is Wings coach Mike Babcock, who was supposed to deliver the goods after Dave Lewis proved too nice a guy. The Wings have won just one playoff round since Babcock took over after the lockout and a quick exit by the Wings could mean the end.
Over in Dallas, Dave Tippett, a prince of a man and a fine coach, also has been unable to translate regular-season success into postseason glory, and the natives are restless. In the Eastern Conference, Bryan Murray was brought into Ottawa to finish the job Jacques Martin started, but couldn't quite get around to completing the big thing on that to-do list -- winning a Stanley Cup. In Atlanta, the Thrashers are expected to put on a strong performance under former Cup winner Bob Hartley in their first postseason appearance, an important one for strengthening the team's position in the city.
We're watching you
Joe Thornton, Turco, Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Sergei Gonchar, Todd Bertuzzi, Hasek and Brad Richards. What do these players have in common? If you said "played the goat in the school play," you'd be close. These players, unfairly or not, have been tabbed as the ones who have either failed to deliver the playoff goods or have failed to live up to whopper new contracts or both. They are all players who, at one point or another, will be described as "having a lot to prove" this spring. As if every other one of their teammates doesn't have something to prove, like winning the most difficult trophy in sports.
Are the Vancouver Canucks for real?
Come on, admit it. Every night you'd look at the standings and say, "That can't be -- the Vancouver Canucks, leaders of the Northwest Division?" But the Canucks managed to achieve the seemingly impossible -- winning one of the NHL's toughest divisions while essentially scoring the bare minimum of goals required. OK, the duo of Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin can score (they combined for 165 points). But no one else really does much in the way of scoring. Instead, like the Devils with Martin Brodeur, the Canucks count on Luongo to save the day, every day, while hoping they can muck up their opponents' plans long enough for the twins to score. It is a curious departure for a team that built its recent identity on fire wagon hockey, an identity that translated into virtually no playoff success. It will be interesting to see if this new look fares any better.
Can Sean Avery continue to play without losing his mind?
There is so much to like about Sean Avery unless your team is playing the New York Rangers. Then, you pretty much want to put a mug through the television screen every time you see him. The native of Pickering, Ontario, is annoying and fast and tough, and he never, ever, seems to shut up. Since he arrived in New York, the Rangers are a different team. The most surprising thing about Avery's contributions isn't his plus-11 or his 20 points in 29 games in Manhattan -- it's the fact he hasn't cost his team by becoming berserk boy. If he can keep it that way, the Rangers will continue to be a very difficult team to play against, and get by.
Not so black and white
Who will be the first to complain the refereeing standards have fallen back into the traditional clutch-and-grab mode? "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron MacLean? Actually, we bet it's the first team that doesn't get as many power-play opportunities as it'd like and loses in overtime. Conversely, who will be the first to complain that referees should let the players play? We bet it's the first team hit with double-digit minor penalties and gives up five power-play goals. Or Ron MacLean.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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